VALPARAISO | When Chris Palombizio went down with a broken bone in his foot Feb. 21 against Valpo, the prevailing opinion was that Chesterton's sectional chances went down with him.
"We've been hearing it all week," Cole Teal said.
The Trojans silenced the skeptics in Wednesday's Class 4A Valparaiso Sectional, where Teal's 23 points and Andrew Ralph's lock-down defense on Justin Osburn carried Chesterton to a 45-37 victory over the host Vikings.
In the second game, LaPorte held off Merrillville 62-49.
"Cole was the difference in the game," Chesterton coach Tom Peller said. "He willed us to win the game. His whole play, his offensive play and his leadership. Andrew's job on Osburn was really key. He's their guy, their senior leader."
Teal registered Chesterton's first seven points, bringing them from a 7-2 deficit. The Trojans countered with a 16-2 run and never trailed again. Teal posted all 10 Chesterton points in the third quarter, his back-to-back 3s reasserting the Trojans after Valpo (12-9) had briefly pulled even at 21.
"Chris obviously drew a lot of attention, but I've said it before, when we work the ball and get open looks, we're all capable shooters," Teal said. "My teammates trust me. They look for me. I'm definitely feeling in rhythm."
Chesterton (12-9) pushed the lead to 10 before a pair of Drew Paul treys revived Valpo. The Vikings edged within five and had the ball three times with a chance to get closer, but they couldn't muster the offense against a Trojans defense that held them to 31 points the last time.
"We knew someone other than Justin and Conner (TenHove) would have to make shots, and it just didn't happen," Valpo coach Matt Thomas said. "Ralph's a fantastic defender. Teal's just a gamer."
Osburn managed just four points on 1-of-7 shooting. He didn't get a shot off in the first half. TenHove topped Valpo with 14 points and six rebounds. Paul had 12 points.
"I have primarily a defense-first mindset," Ralph said. "It's my job to stop the other team's best player. It's a challenge to me and like it. (Osburn)'s a good player. It was my job to make him put it on the floor, to drive. The guys did a good job hard hedging (on screens) long enough for me to get back. Defense isn't just one guy."
Corey Rusboldt picked up nine points and nine rebounds for Chesterton, which shot 50 percent from the field (12 of 24) and the arc (5 of 10).
"To win the sectional, we have to be the best defensive team," Peller said. "We had to scrap and keep the game where we could control it, play a more patient game. Shot selection was important and other than a few possessions, we took good shots."
Valpo shot 34 percent, including 4-of-18 from deep.
In the second game, LaPorte rode big games from its main men, Josh Fleming (23 points) and Gage Ott (21 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks) to down Merrillville.
"It's a great league full of great players and we've got two of 'em," Slicers coach Tom Wells said. "I'll take 44 from those two the rest of the way. 'JJ' (Jacob Jones) does what he does. He's somebody teams know they've got to guard. He's an important piece of the puzzle. This group of seniors has a very determined look."
Fleming drilled three of LaPorte's five 3-pointers in the first quarter to get the Slicers (14-7) off and running. Ott did most of his damage in the second half, when LaPorte pulled away after Merrillville reduced the deficit to one.
"Josh got us off to such a great start," Wells said. "When he plays like that, he's such an anchor for us. We started to do a little better job on the backboard in the second half. For a while, they were playing volleyball. We didn't give them so many second chances and we got Gage more touches. They were in some foul trouble and we knew where the ball had to go."
Ott put down back-to-back dunks in the fourth quarter, one in transition and one on a lob to push the margin to double figures inside the three-minute mark.
"Ott was great defensively and very active," said Merrillville coach T.J. Lux, whose Pirates were hampered by 12-of-23 foul shooting. "Fleming did a great job controlling the tempo. You look at him and see how efficient he was. DJ (Wilkins)'s shooting never got comfortable."
Wilkins got a lesson from his senior counterpart, scoring four points while going 0-for-10 from the field.
"We've had some success taking away a team's lead guy," Wells said. "To kill the snake, you've got to cut off the head and it started with Wilkins. There are games where we try to protect Josh, but not at tournament time. We're going to put our best on their best and see how it pans out. As good of a job as Josh did on the offensive end, he did a hell of a job on Wilkins, too."
Jairus Stevens' 10 points topped the Pirates (4-16).
"I don't know if it was inexperience or whatever," Lux said. "This was the first time in a sectional for most of them. You always wonder they're going to react. Our seniors played their hearts out. This will be good for our young guys. They can learn a lot from this season, specifically this game. We just need guys to step up and make plays. We have to really learn and grow."
Wells was relieved not to need a last-second 3-pointer to elude Merrillville this time.
"If they're not the best 4-16 team in our part, maybe the entire state, I don't know who is," Wells said. "They're so long and obviously athletic. We knew it would be a grind."